The opening of Texture in 2007 caused a murmur amongst food critics and foodies alike, when Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons head chef Agnar Sverisson and head sommelier Xavier Rousset announced a collaboration to open the Icelandic fine-dining restaurant in Portman Square.
But while Sverisson’s CV read like a who’s who of high-end British restaurants (Petrus, Pied a Terre), Rousset’s was more of a short and sweet story, confined to lengthy stays at Gerard Basset’s Hotel du Vin and Le Manoir. The French sommelier however was not one to rest on his laurels, and sitting in the grand, sun-drenched Champagne bar of Texture in the first few folds of spring, Rousset told Becky Paskin how his golden rule to remain at a restaurant for a minimum of one or two years provided him with the right skills to become both the youngest ever Master Sommelier and UK Sommelier of the Year at just 23.
“I got hooked on wine when I was 14 when my parents took me to see some wineries in France," he recalled. "I tasted some wine and was impressed at how a grape could produce so many different varieties and flavours. It was then I realised that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Rousset began reading as much material he could get his hands on before moving from his hometown of St.Etienne, to Saumur in the Loire Valley at the age of 18 to train to be a sommelier.
“I spent one year at school learning about wine making, and discovering the restaurant side of it. I did a lot of regional tastings, and stages that included two weeks work in a wine shop and two months in a restaurant in Paris, so I got to see the whole spectrum of the wine world.
“It was a lot of hard work, and there were a lot of sacrifices and compromises but if you know what you want then that’s the way it can be; nothing comes easy unfortunately.”
Upon graduation in 1999, Rousset decided to move to the UK, directly into his first professional job as assistant chef sommelier at Gerard Basset’s Hotel du Vin in Bristol. And it was at the luxury hotel chain that Rousset developed his theory that staying in one or two establishments for many years was more beneficial than experiencing a few months in many.
“I did some stages in France but I think if you are to make an impact, if you are to learn the most, you need to stay a while in every single establishment. Otherwise you’ll only get time to see the surface but not to go to depth.
“You need to stay for one to two years in one position and then move up the ladder in the same establishment – it’s almost like you`ve gone to another restaurant because you get another level of skill," he explained. "I spent five years at Hotel du Vin, which was a fantastic place to work. They trained me very well and in 2002 they made me head sommelier.”
Training to win
The training he received from Hotel du Vin transpired to be the catalyst that ignited his career: in the same year he was promoted Rousset was named the UK Sommelier of the Year, as well as the youngest Master Sommelier in the world.
“The awards were a fabulous pat on the back and certainly helped my career. Having those titles on my CV really helped to sell myself, but guests that come into Texture now don’t know and don’t care about them as much. I did it more for myself rather than anybody else to check that I was still improving and doing the right thing.
“They were extremely tough to win though. You can’t be confident, because confidence makes you lose concentration. If on the day you taste badly or your nerves make you do something you don’t normally do, then you’re going to lose. Having said that, to win a competition you need to think you’re capable of winning, and being humble helps. I’ve judged a few times and you can tell people who are confident about themselves and usually they don’t deliver.”
By the time Rousset moved to Le Manoir as head sommelier in 2004, a career shift he describes as a ‘big jump’ from Hotel du Vin in terms of ‘service and prestige,’ he nailed the winning competition formula, and became the first runner up in the Trophee Ruinart Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe 2005 whilst representing France.
Working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir not only presented itself with an opportunity to win yet more prestigious titles, it was the breeding ground for a relationship that would lead to Rousset opening his first restaurant.
“I met Agnar while working at Le Manoir, and one evening over dinner we discovered we both really wanted to open a restaurant. One thing lead to another and we found some investors, but despite the process being painful and long (from concept to reality it took the pair two years), opening Texture has been the greatest triumph of my career.
“It’s pretty much what I always wanted it to be, a place where food and wine play equal parts in a very relaxed and friendly environment that can still be amazing without being pompous. Hopefully that’s what people experience and it’s the feeling I get from people when they come here, you feel like you can laugh whereas in a fine dining restaurant you feel like you can’t have much fun.
Realising the dream
Texture opened to a barrage of raving reviews, including a coveted four stars from the hard-to-impress Fay Maschler, who particularly commended the quality and accuracy of Sverisson’s Icelandic cuisine. But with experience at just two establishments, Rousset was not as prepared as he would have liked when Texture first opened.
“I don’t regret only working in two places, I still think if you want to do something well then you need to stay in a place longer than average, a year is just not enough. But when it came to opening Texture I was ready and unprepared at the same time. I don’t have kids, but I imagine its like when you have your first baby, you can feel so ready for it but when they actually arrive it can change your life. In the restaurant world, you may have the wine skills or the cooking skills, but you need to learn the business side of things too, which you can only learn by doing it yourself. I felt like I was ready, but time will tell. I might be lacking in skills in a different aspect and hopefully I’ll pick those up as I go along.
Now, at the age of 28, Rousset has envisaged a bright future for Texture, with plans to ‘consolidate one restaurant at a time’ albeit after the recession is over. For now he and Sverisson are happy concentrating on riding Texture through the credit crunch and building on its reputation, but hopefully with Rousset’s humble confidence and award-winning front of house skills, his own reputation as one of the world’s best sommeliers will give them a deserved shove in the right direction.